Education Department May Limit Scope of Civil Rights Probes

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

After revoking some Title IX rules that were an effort to reduce sexual assault on school campuses, as well as offer protections for trans students, the Education Department now wants to limit its civil rights investigations of schools. The plan relies on removing the word “systemic” from its guidelines on investigations.

Currently, if the government receives a civil rights complaint about a school, it explores not only that specific incident but also related systemic problems that could lead to such incidents recurring or happening on a broader scale. For example, a discrimination claim against a school is investigated along with whether the behavior involved is common for that teacher, school or district.

The Hill continues:

Discrimination advocates told the AP that the change could allow for the continuation of the same widespread behaviors that lead to investigations in the first place. …

Another proposed change would allow the department to negotiate agreements with schools or school districts without releasing the findings of an investigation to the students and parents involved in discrimination complaints.

Investigation of possible systemic discrimination came about under President Obama, and some complained that it led to slower resolutions of complaints. Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill said the processing time skyrocketed under that investigation style, adding, “Justice delayed is justice denied, and justice for many complainants has been denied for too long.”

However, critics note that the changes proposed in a draft document would give schools greater control in handling cases, as opposed to a student or parent who files a complaint, and would eliminate the appeals process; and a school facing a complaint would be allowed to negotiate with the Department of Education about the resolution before the parent or student is informed of the finding in a letter. Seth Galanter, the former principal deputy assistant secretary for human rights in Obama’s Education Department, said, “The letter may still reach the same result, but it may be completely diluted of any fact that would inform the parent and the community about what’s going on in the school,”

The Washington Post writes:

Seth Galanter… criticized the proposed revisions, saying the civil rights office’s key mission is to identify and solve systemic problems.

Galanter gave an example of a complaint stemming from a white and a minority student getting into a fight, but the minority student being disciplined more harshly than the white student. Under the previous procedure, OCR (Office for Civil Rights) would examine that particular case but also look at whether that teacher, school or school district was engaging in other similar discriminatory behavior.

“It’s a very surface level fix that certainly will make that particular parent happy, but isn’t fulfilling OCR’s obligation,” Galanter added. “OCR is underfunded and understaffed and in order to get through all the complaints in some kind of timely manner, staff is being forced to give them superficial treatment.”

The Associated Press also reported that the Trump administration wants to cut $9 billion from the Education Department, entailing a possible cut of at least 40 out of 570 positions at the Office for Civil Rights.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a statement that she was “appalled” that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos “would use a lack of staffing and resources as an excuse to roll back civil rights investigations and protections, and then turn around and attempt to shrink these critical offices. … I will continue to work to give the Department the resources it needs to better aid students and families, and I strongly urge Secretary DeVos to stop putting her ideological agenda above students and work with us.”

Emily Wells
​Emily Wells is an Ear to the Ground blogger at Truthdig. As a journalist, she began as a crime reporter at the Pulitzer-winning daily newspaper, The Press-Enterprise...
Emily Wells

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